Lost and Found In New York, prisoners who use their sentences to pursue transformation through the arts, education, and spiritual discipleship go on to transform the outside world B y H ans B . H all u ndbae k
“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips … among people of unclean lips.” …Then one of the seraphs flew to me holding a live coal. …The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “…your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said: “Here am I; send me.” Isaiah 6:5-8
offered by various outreach organizations. Stripped of their physical freedom and so many other choices, they assert the mental and spiritual freedom that will always be theirs, the freedom to use their hearts and minds to learn, reflect, interact lovingly with themselves and those around them, and plan a better future. Some inmates even come to see their imprisonment as a monastic experience of spiritual cleansing and renewal, and eventually as a place to learn to reach out to others in mutually rewarding ways. In the Catskill Mountains, a three-hour drive north of New York City, is a reformatory institution constructed with precisely this monastic concept in mind. Woodbourne Correctional Facility was built as a WPA project when the nation was in the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Many a man or woman straying onto the criminal path has, upon arrest, echoed the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Woe is me! I am lost,” as handcuffs snap around their wrists and they take their first steps into the dark world of incarceration in this country’s vast criminal justice system. Separated from outside society, convicted criminals serve their time in one or more of the over 1,800 prisons in our country. The states of California, Illinois, and Texas lead the country’s race to incarcerate approximately 2.5 million US citizens, followed by New York, whose geography is pocked with 70 prisons, from New York City up to the Canadian border. Once settled into the dull routine of prison life, inmates can spend years of seclusion brooding on past mistakes, fostering bitterness and depression, even scheming about future crimes. Alternatively, that same time can be used productively, doing deep spiritual work, seeking an understanding of themselves and their role in the world, and searching for a new approach to life. Fortunately many prisoners choose the latter, engaging in treatment and educational programs, where available, that are Inmates at Sing Sing perform Oedipus Rex.
program, we constantly witness powerful transformations of men and women. Literally before our eyes we see individuals start to recognize their own self-worth and discover a new lease on life through change. Equally important, many emerge with a passion for helping others grow into the maturity they have themselves experienced.”
Mark Wallace is one example of such change.Today, he works as the violence prevention coordinator for 15 public schools in the poverty-stricken town of Newburgh, N.Y., teaching K-12 children to stay away from violence and crime. But Wallace’s first career was dealing drugs in New York City, a job that led to an 18-year prison sentence. According to Wallace, his first step towards transformation was when his mother visited him in his early stay at Attica prison and cried,“Son! What have you done with your life?” That visit had a lasting impact, and Wallace spent his first few years in introspection, silent reflection, and study. Eventually he was transferred to Sing Sing, where, learning of the efforts to start a drama group, he became a founding member of RTA. Through the theatrical work, Wallace gradually grew self-esteem and ended up playing the lead role in several productions. On the transformative effects of acting, Wallace says, “Stepping out of yourself and into a different role initially takes you out of your comfort zone, but then it begins to provide a whole new perspective on life.” With increased confidence, Wallace moved on to the privately funded prison college program and later proudly earned his master of theology degree from New York Theological Seminary’s Sing Sing extension. “Unlike in my former career,” he says, “I look forward every day to going to work with the kids, keeping them on a straight path.” Another powerful story of dramatic transformation belongs to Sean “Dino” Johnson. Inducted into an innercity gang at the age of 16, Johnson participated in violent street activities that eventually landed him in prison. Only after three imprisonments with a total duration of 15 years was Johnson able to break away from his connection to gang life, both physically and mentally.
A drug dealer as a teen, today Mark Wallace teaches K-12 kids how to steer clear of drugs, crime, and violence. Master bricklayers, stonemasons, and metal workers combined their skills to replicate a European-style monastery adapted to the ideas of reflective redemption for the prisoner of the day, originally for wayward youth and today for convicted felons. At this medium security prison, a unique 21st-century project is underway to foster the latent growth potential of the incarcerated population. But it is not a course in anger management, a treatment program for substance abuse, or a Bible study. Rather it is a program in modern dance, born of the recognition that, since primordial times, dance has been a treasured and effective tool for integrating the mind, body, and spirit. The dance program at Woodbourne is the latest of a series of projects introduced into New York state correctional facilities through Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA). A private nonprofit, RTA launched its first efforts in 1996 in the infamous Sing Sing prison, “up the river” from New York City. RTA currently operates in six prisons and is rapidly developing its extensive creative arts program for incarcerated men and women into a national model. Through theater, dance, creative writing, poetry, yoga, vocal arts, and visual arts, RTA provides a safe space where creativity is nurtured and respected. The philosophy behind RTA is that the arts facilitate imagination, learning, insight, and growth; offer perspective on our behavior and an opportunity to explore its consequences; and build self-discipline, selfconfidence, and communication skills. While RTA originated as a drama troupe in Sing Sing, providing an outlet for creative talent behind prison walls, its founder and current executive director, Katherine Vockins, soon realized that exposure to art in all its forms is a powerful tool for penetrating and opening minds closed through years of childhood trauma, neglect, or misguidance.When combined with the bleakness of inner-city poverty, childhood deficits can create a slippery slope that leads to criminal activity and eventual incarceration. Dedicated to reversing this trend, Vockins says, “In this
A former gang member, Sean “Dino” Johnson now helps keep kids out of gang life.
Outside in, inside out
Sean Pica spent his 16 years behind bars taking advantage of educational and arts programs. Today he leads a nonprofit that offers college courses to Sing Sing inmates so they can lead more productive lives upon reentering society.
In turn, the outside world is becoming more engaged in its effort to help people in prison grow and change. The Presbytery of the Hudson River in New York State is one powerful example. Through the efforts of General Presbyter Susan Andrews and several progressive church leaders, the presbytery has established a prison partnership program, spearheading prison engagement through its 91 member churches. Andrews comments, “The passion for prison ministry that is growing in our presbytery is a central missional call for our faith family. We have 17 criminal justice institutions within our presbytery region and roughly the same amount of prisoners inside as there are Presbyterians in this geographical area. We therefore have a unique opportunity to proclaim the love and grace of the gospel by developing personal relationships, reform and advocacy networks, and exit ministries to help ‘set the prisoner free.’Whether we are imprisoned within security walls or imprisoned within our own fears and prejudices, we are called to the work of liberation in the name of Jesus Christ.” True to the spirit of its efforts, the presbytery’s prison partnership program is spearheaded by a former prisoner, Ricardo “Shepp” Sheppard. With both parents in ministry, nine years of service with the US Marine Corps, and time served as a chaplain’s clerk during his 12-year stint on the inside, Sheppard has been well seasoned on both sides of the wall. Sheppard says, “I am honored to have this opportunity to give back and excited to work with churches in the Hudson Valley on prison issues.” When asked about the potential for prisons as breeding grounds for missionaries, he breaks into a smile and says, “Don’t worry, they already are! In prisons you will find much serious study, reflection, community building, and change by men and women who are on a spiritual and Jesus-centered journey.” His advice for congregations interested in prison ministry: “Do not enter with the idea of bringing Jesus into prison. He is already there in force. Instead, come and meet the Jesus of the marginalized and the outcast. Today Jesus hangs out with sinners in prison and sets them free through forgiveContinued on page 39.
Now five years out, Johnson directs the School-Based Initiative at the Council for Unity in Manhattan. Through the council’s work in over 50 schools in the five boroughs of New York City, he leads the effort to keep young people out of gang life. Looking back, Johnson says, “When entering prison for the third time, I realized I had to change. I had to find my real self, and the drama program helped me do that. It connected me with the pain and humiliation I felt as a young adult. Art taught me to approach my anger and frustrations creatively and let me deal more constructively with difficult issues.These are critical skills to convey to the next generation.” While some formerly incarcerated men and women focus on change outside of the prison system, Sean Pica looks back to those who are still behind the tall barbed-wired walls. Pica spent his teenage years and youth in prison, locked up between the ages of 16 and 32. Having taken advantage of all the programs available to him, from RTA and college courses up to a master of theology degree and, upon release, a master of social work from Hunter College, he now serves as the executive director of Hudson Link, a privately sponsored college program accredited by Mercy College in New York. Entering prison as a young but educated teenager, Pica quickly found himself helping illiterate inmates read letters and compose answers to loved ones on the outside. He was quickly taken under the wings of older, more experienced prisoners who drafted him into the Sing SingYouth Awareness Program, which focuses on inmates teaching groups of visiting school kids not to engage in crime. Says Pica, “When, after a presentation, the kids would come up to me and say I had changed their lives, it was a total ‘aha moment’ for me. I learned the ‘high’ of giving something to others.” Vockins says, “When first entering prison I expected to find ‘stereotypical’ criminals.When I recognized their humanity and saw them change, it made me a changed person.” She adds,“Today I look at my sisters and brothers outside the walls with new eyes.”
Former inmate Ricardo “Shepp” Sheppard spearheads the Hudson River Presbytery’s prison partnership program.
out the lyric’s crux, a line Sam nonetheless sings with the lightest touch. “Looking for the lamb that’s hidden in the cross, the finder’s lost.” Let the “Is she
still a Christian?” crowd chew on that one while those who have loved too much, and now must go on alone, do so with Sam Phillips’ music up above their heads.
J.D. Buhl appears in the music issue of Geez Magazine (Fall 2008). He teaches junior high English and literature at Queen of All Saints School in Concord, Calif.
Lost and Found continued from page 11.
A Sacred Opportunity continued from page 22.
ness and transformative change. Befriending them and witnessing their change can foster change in you and in your community.” Sean Pica, Mark Wallace, Sean Johnson, Ricardo Sheppard, and thousands of other men and women have been powerfully transformed through their prison experience. Like Isaiah, they have been touched by the seraph’s live coal and experienced its life-giving power by hearing the healing words: “Your guilt has departed, and your sin is blotted out.” Not only have they changed for their own sake but they have also answered the divine call, with the power of conversion gleaming in their eyes: “Here we are, Lord. Send us.” n
ment. There’s an opportunity to build a relationship and influence. I take it slowly, step by step, and once there’s trust anything becomes possible. Someone asked one of the men why he trusted me, and his response was, ‘Well, she trusted me first.’” Her approach for building trust is remarkably simple. “I ask them how they are doing and inquire about their families. I just try to normalize the situation as much as possible. I ask them when their birthday is. I record their birthdays and then bring them a card—that usually blows their mind! If I hear there has been a death or illness in their family, I will bring a sympathy card. Just doing the normal things, things you and I on the outside take for granted, makes huge inroads in the prison. Keeping promises is also crucial.” What is it that draws Thomas back to the prison week after week, year after year? “The Bible makes it clear that prisoners are important to God,” she explains. “And there is a special reward for visiting with prisoners, as mentioned in Matthew 25. The way I interpret it is that God sees prison as a sacred place. I’m still learning to understand that, but I’ve come to see prison as a sacred place, too.When you get locked up you’re at the bottom of the barrel; there’s nowhere to run. So most inmates then turn their attention to God.That is how many of them cope with prison and actually find spiritual freedom they might not otherwise find on the streets. “God called me to this work,” she continues. “He placed the ministry in my heart. I see my own life being transformed daily, so the ministry just keeps drawing me deeper and deeper in. Having seen the evidence of God moving, doing miracles in the prison, I don’t want to do anything else. I worked for a big bank for many years and then for a secular nonprofit, but I left that to follow this calling, and it’s changed my life completely.” n
Learn more about Rehabilitation Through the Arts at RTA-arts.org. Dr. Hans B. Hallundbaek (email@example.com) has spent many years as a prison volunteer and educator. Besides writing on social and criminal justice issues, he serves as a Presbyterian minister and teaches legal aspects of corrections management at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. The Correct Way continued from page 19. not followers, so when they get out they can stay out. As in every community we live in, security should be paramount to deter lawlessness. On the outside, we expect our caretakers—police, firefighters, educators, etc.—to be qualified. Inside prison it should be no different. If the guards aren’t qualified, it defeats the purpose. Men and women should leave prison equipped to do something valuable — tailoring, computer literacy, electrical work, plumbing. Prisons should be in partnership with the community — if you have an A student coming out of a plumbing program, a local company should be waiting in the wings to hire him right away. He’s not used to life on the outside anymore, or how the world has changed. It’s intimidating without a lot of help from the community. n
Sharon Gramby-Sobukwe is department chair of Eastern University’s School of Leadership and Development (NGOLeader.org), which offers organizational leadership and economic/community development programs in South Africa in a hybrid (online/annual residency) format. Kristyn Komarnicki is editor of PRISM.